Pussycats and the Owl

The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age

by Harriet Ritvo
Harvard University Press, 347 pp., $25.00

One Man’s Owl

by Bernd Heinrich
Princeton University Press, 224 pp., $19.50

In a letter to Engels, Karl Marx noted an uncanny similarity between natural selection and Victorian economic realities:

It is remarkable how Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labor, competition, opening up of new markets, “invention,” and the Malthusian “struggle for existence.” It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes [the war of all against all].

Although the specific links surely merited Marx’s observation, the general phenomenon should have evoked no surprise, despite the canonical claim of science to freedom from such social connections. After all, the dawn has risen rosy-fingered, and overhanging cliffs have threatened like a man with raised shoulders ever since literature began. If distantly inanimate objects are read in human terms, how can we possibly resist the temptation to view our true relatives, warm and sentient, with faces and emotions like ours, as symbols or embodiments of human values and institutions?

All but the most unrepentant positivist from my own scientific camp will understand and embrace Harriet Ritvo’s major theme—that all forms of human relationship with animals, including those labeled most objective or scientific, must record (at the least) human hopes and preferences imposed upon nature, or (at most) elaborate metaphors of human society read into the lives of animals. The brilliance of Ritvo’s book, my favorite for 1987, does not lie in this accepted generality, but in the particular examples that she has chosen to illustrate the institutional bonds of humans with other animals. She has selected a series of seven vignettes or case studies for Victorian Britain, varied in source, message, and meaning, but coherent in a common theme: the depiction of animals in popular books of natural history, the breeding of prize cattle, dog fancying, animal protection, rabies, zoo keeping, and hunting.

Nothing titillates intellectuals more than the fierce battles that rage on other people’s turf. With ice-cold detachment, they can enjoy the gossip and marvel at the passion that other people are willing to invest in issues that appear inconsequential (or at least not worth a cuss hurled across a crowded convention floor). I don’t want to butt into other people’s battles, and I do know that historians can get royally worked up over the conflict between traditional accounts of kings, battles, and diplomatic history and the focus of annalistes on the commonplaces of ordinary lives and institutions. But I must say that, from a purely personal view, I am fascinated to learn that while Lincoln died, Victoria prospered, Bismarck rose, and Italy coalesced, the Smithfield Club Fat Cattle Show, the Kennel Club Stud Book, the Case Book of Prosecutions by the RSPCA, and the Regent’s Park Zoo Guide Book all continued to publish their annual volumes, and that so much of general interest and importance can be learned from these and other neglected sources from the underbelly of traditional scholarship. I may have learned little but mythology about the former topics in school, but I never knew …

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